“Freedom to decide for ourselves”: older people speak out at the UN

Verene of Rwanda (right) at the Open Ended Working Group meeting in New York

London/New York, 23 July 2018: Vérène Nyirabalinda, an older woman from Rwanda attending the ninth session of the Open-ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) taking place at the United Nations in New York this week on behalf of older people from Africa said those in her age bracket feel denied the right to autonomy and independence.

“To me, autonomy and independence is being able to make decisions without interference from anyone else” said Verene.

Together with Vanda Ou from Cambodia who is representing older people in Asia, Mama Nyirabalinda talked publicly about her experiences, and those of older people in the region.

Urantsooj Gombosuren from the Centre for Human Rights and Development in Mongolia who was a panelist on the topic of autonomy and independence said older people often take care of grandchildren, unpaid, and then take out loans to support their adult children and their families. “This is often not the choice of older people. This is violation of their rights to autonomy and independence,” she said.  

Vanda told the OEWG, “I am an older person. I want to make my own decisions in every aspect of my life. And I also believe all older people want to make their own decisions without any fear or interference by others, particularly from their families. Older people, including me, want to have freedom and are strongly motivated to do what we wish.”

Verene said, “It is the government’s responsibility to make sure older persons’ decisions are respected in the law and in practice and that older persons have the information and support they might need to make those decisions. 

Over the past year, HelpAge International conducted a study of these topics, consulting with 450 older people in 24 countries. 

In the report Freedom to Decide for Ourselves, older people speak out about what autonomy and independence means to them, and about the lack of long-term care and palliative care services available in their communities.

Bridget Sleap, Rights Senior Policy Adviser at HelpAge International, said: “Although people around the world are living longer, older people continue to be subjected to ageism, discrimination and denial of their rights. Very few know about or have access to palliative care to support them to live and die free from pain and unnecessary suffering.

“Existing human rights mechanisms do not adequately protect their rights, and states are failing to meet their obligations towards older people. It is vital that older people themselves have a voice at the OEWG, and are part of any discussions about their rights. We are delighted that Vanda and Vérène have agreed to make long journeys to New York to be with us and share their views and experiences directly.” 

There are no standards on autonomy and independence, care and support, or palliative care in older age in existing international human rights law. Older people and members of the HelpAge global network have been calling for a new UN convention on the rights of older persons to guarantee these and other rights, including through Age Demands Action campaigns in 47 countries. 

Justin Derbyshire, Chief Executive of HelpAge International, is also attending the OEWG and meeting with representatives of member states, funders and partner agencies. He said: “At a time when human rights are under threat around the world, it is more important than ever to develop universal standards to protect our rights when we are older. More governments, particularly those who champion human rights in other areas, need to participate in the OEWG to ensure its outcomes advance human rights for everyone.” 



Get involved – here are four things you can do to support the OEWG process:  

  1. Share our film featuring older people speaking about what autonomy and independence mean to them. This will be live on our social media from Monday 23 July.
  2. If you haven’t already, read and share the “Freedom to Decide” report. 
  3. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook and share our new infographics (open in SharePoint).
  4. Watch the live webcast on UN TV by clicking the ‘live now’ link in the webpage.


About HelpAge International

HelpAge International is a global network of organisations promoting the right of all older people to lead dignified, healthy and secure lives. Our mission is to promote the wellbeing and inclusion of older women and men, and to reduce poverty and discrimination in later life. www.helpage.org